The Pistol formation, its limitations and upside.

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Next in our offensive concept series is the Pistol. The quarterback lines up 3-4 yards behind center. Since the shotgun formation has the quarterback take the snap 5-7 yards behind the center, half that distance gives it the name, pistol. The RB normally lines up behind him.

Not many teams use the pistol often, or ever, because it doesn’t offer many upsides. It’s a t’aint. T’aint a shotgun and t’aint under center. It is definitely a down/distance circumstance formation. It’s a hybrid of the Single back formation and the Shotgun. The formation was popularized by Nevada Head Coach Chris Ault who was hired by the Chiefs from 2013-2015 as an offensive consultant.

Opinions vary, but for me, in the red zone is its biggest advantage. You’re on the seven, you want to pass, but you don’t want to take the snap too far in case you get sacked. Or you don’t want to line up under center because you don’t want to waste the time dropping back. You want a short pass rifled out as soon as possible. Enter the pistol.

Another big advantage is that since it’s a 1-back/Shotgun hybrid, it allows for more running game concepts to be added to the reduced version of the shotgun. With the QB lined up in front of him, dive/trap plays are more direct, the back can still run off tackle. It generally is a more balanced pass/run than the shotgun is on it’s own.

However, because the QB is still back from the LOS, it can have limits with vision because the QB can be in the way. Some RBs say they don’t care where the quarterback is, others have a preference.

Teams have often incorporated it to help battle a QB injury. Pittsburgh did this with Ben Roethlisberger and Denver added it to its bag of tricks when Peyton Manning was working through various foot injuries.

Another scenario can be, you want to run, either with a RB or even a Sweep/Bootleg with the QB, but you want to do it quickly. Or you line up the RB and FB next to the QB in what looks to be a run, to keep the defense from blitzing, but it’s really for protection for a corner pass that’s takes a hair longer for the Tight End to get to.

For passes, one upside is the pocket forms around him quickly because he’s already in it. However, if he wants more than a short pass, he’s standing in there for a while waiting on a receiver to get depth. Not something you want to do with a poor OL, so the QB will have to drift back a step or two.

If a QB wants to run a QB power/Draw, then it is slightly better than the shotgun because the QB is a bit closer to the LOS.  This can be a good tool for a more mobile quarterback who is adept at running. There are also concepts of where the QB uses the deception of a fake hand off with the back and keeps the ball himself in an attempt to score. These are more of a “read-option” concept than a naked bootleg. The read-option is a concept that is fairly new/rare to the NFL game simply because it gets the QBs hit far more than most teams want QB1 to get hit.

Cam Newton is a QB that is extremely good at running these type of concepts where he makes a decision to hand off to the back or keep it himself. The Panthers have created some pass/run options  off of this concept as well, so he can give it, keep it, or keep it and throw it, making the offense much harder to defend and prepare for.

Like with the shotgun piece, throughout the post there are 3 graphics and here is the summary of the formations.

  1. A generic 3WR set with a TE and RB.
  2. A 3WR set with a TE/RB and 3 receivers on the left side of the offense.
  3. A 2WR 2 RB set with a TE.
  4. A 4WR set with 3WR on the left side of the offense.
  5. A version of the Pistol Bronco Heavy with 2RB and 3TE.
  6. A 2TE/2WR set with a RB.
  7. A 2TE/2WRset with the two TEs in wing positions.
  8. A 2TE/2WR set with a bunch concept on the left.
  9. A 4WR Pistol set
  10. A 4WR Pistol set with 3WR on the left in a Kings (3-stacked receivers) concept.
  11. A 3WR set with a TE/RB with 3 guys on the right hand side of the formation.
  12. A similar concept as #11 but the guys are positioned differently with 3 guys on the left of the formation.
  13. A spread set with Queens on the right and a RB offset to the left
  14. A spread set with the RB offset to the right in the backfield.
  15. A non-traditional set with a TE/Tackle spread out on each side of the formation with a WR stacked behind them. It’s referred to as the “Emory & Henry” formation. This is the Pistol version of the concept.

As more teams add the concept to their offense, it will evolve and grow as the shotgun has since the  70’s. It could easily be a bigger part of a team’s offense 5-10 years down the road than it is today. It is still in the infant stages from an NFL perspective.

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